ACLU History: Prisons

September 1, 2010
For much of this country's history, prisoners were considered to be little more than slaves of the state, and courts maintained a 'hands-off' approach to prisons and jails. In the late 1960s, as courts started showing greater receptivity to the claims of prisoners, the ACLU began taking on cases that challenged unconstitutional conditions of confinement.

One of the ACLU's first significant cases began with a letter smuggled out of a Virginia prison, describing brutal conditions such as tear-gassing, solitary confinement as punishment for complaints, and a ban on all contact with the outside world, including lawyer visits. One prisoner who complained, Robert Landman, was given 266 days in solitary for speaking out, and the ACLU was forced to get a court order just to visit him. In the 1971 decision, Landman v. Royster, a federal court agreed that conditions in several Virginia prisons violated due process, the First Amendment right to communicate with others, and the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.

In 1972, the ACLU established the National Prison Project (NPP) to defend the civil and constitutional rights of prisoners. The early years of the Project were devoted to fighting squalid, brutal conditions that many Americans could scarcely believe existed in their own country. In one Alabama prison the NPP found a developmentally disabled teenage prisoner with the IQ of a five-year-old who was raped five times on his first night in prison, and brutally beaten the second night after his pleas for help to the warden fell on deaf ears. A federal judge later denounced the 'rampant violence and jungle atmosphere,' as well as the multiple constitutional violations that existed throughout the Alabama prison system. As these egregious conditions were eliminated, we turned our attention to other problems that were less shocking but no less important. In prisons, jails, and juvenile institutions across the country, we brought lawsuits challenging inadequate medical and mental health care, dangerous and unhealthy physical facilities, abuse by staff, and other unlawful conditions. In many cases, federal courts issued facility-wide or even statewide orders to remedy these deficiencies.

The ACLU's work in prisons and jails often paralleled the organization's work in society at large: seeking equal treatment for female prisoners and challenging practices uniquely degrading to women, such as humiliating body cavity searches and the shackling of pregnant prisoners during labor and delivery; use of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) to ensure that prisoners with disabilities have equal access to prison programs and facilities; and defending the right of prisoners to read, write, worship, and communicate with the outside world without government interference. As HIV and AIDS ravaged the prison population, the ACLU challenged inadequate medical care for prisoners living with HIV, as well as their forced segregation and exclusion from jobs and other prison programs. In large part due to the ACLU's litigation and other efforts, Alabama and South Carolina are now the only states that segregate prisoners with HIV from the general prison population.

The ACLU's work on behalf of prisoners has never been easy. Supreme Court decisions have made it more difficult to prove violations of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments. And in 1996, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which subjects civil rights lawsuits brought by prisoners to a host of burdens and restrictions that apply to no one else. The ACLU challenged the PLRA in court, and continues efforts to reform or repeal its worst features.

Today the ACLU remains the only organization that litigates challenges to prison and jail conditions on a nationwide basis. While the medieval conditions that it challenged in the early 1970s are largely a thing of the past, the explosive growth in the prison population and an increasingly punitive criminal justice policy have brought new challenges. As the ACLU strives to reverse the misguided policies that have given the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world, it continues to fight for the right of prisoners to conditions that are consistent with health, safety, and human dignity.

Presently, the ACLU is challenging conditions in the Los Angeles County Jail, where rampant crowding has led to conditions that a federal judge described as 'inconsistent with basic human values.' Another current focus is the effort to obtain legal and legislative action that would restrict the use of 'supermax' units. In these increasingly controversial units, prisoners are held in isolation for months or years at a time, often resulting in severe psychiatric illness or even suicide. And the ACLU has expanded its work to include conditions in immigration detention – currently the nation's fastest-growing form of incarceration.

The Supreme Court has said that 'there is no iron curtain drawn between the Constitution and the prisons of this country.' As the ACLU celebrates its 90th anniversary, it will continue its work to ensure that this fundamental truth is never forgotten.


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